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Iron like a Lion in Zion (Jenny Noyce)

October 26, 2009

The extent to which William Gibson’s novel Nueromancer succeeds in depicting a world that both is and is not the civilization that we know is remarkable.  Having studied creative writing (and being a sometime writer myself), I am amazed, really, by Gibson’s ability to evoke a sense of simultaneous strangeness and familiarity in me.  There are plenty of things in Gibson’s world with which I am utterly unfamiliar (both because they are made up and because I am at a loss even in the world of technology in which I actually exist).  But in those moments in the novel when music plays, I feel a sense of relief.  There is something human–something that connects with the spirit–about music.  This is true in our world  as well as, I would argue, in Neuromancer.  Furthermore, this seems to be true at all “levels” or locations in the novel: in the matrix, when Case has “flipped,” when he has “flatlined,” and in the “actual world” of the novel.

Dub reggae, in particular, is the genre of music that seems to call Case back to his human self at various points in the novel.  This is fascinating to me for a lot of reasons:

1.  Dub is not an ancient or somehow archaic genre of music.  Its forerunners began playing dub in the 1960s; some of them are still alive.  This is not a case of the prehistoric noise of the cosmos entering Case’s consciousness when his humanity is most threatened.  Furthermore…

2.  Dub is not a “Western” genre of music, in the same way that classical, or blues, or even rock-n-roll might be conceptualized.  I think of Kubrick’s 2001:A Space Odyssey, in which Western classical music serves as the soundtrack for events happening elsewhere in the solar system.  Gibson, it seems, doesn’t associate Case’s “human moments” with a mainstream Western tradition of music.  I wonder: why?…

3.  Dub music (and all reggae, for that matter) is closely connected to the culture of Jamaica and the belief system of Rastafari, which rejects the values of Western society, incorporates the use of ganja into its religious ethos, believes in the equality of all people, and perceives a unity of the self and the divine within each human (hence, the use of “I and I” instead of “we”).

At one point, after Case flatlines for a short time while seated near Maelcum, he jacks out. Their conversation goes as follows:

“You dead while there, mon.”

“It happens,” he said.  “I’m getting used to it.”

“You dealin’ wi’ th’ darkness, mon.”

“Only game in town, it looks like.”

“Jah love, Case,” Maelcum said, and turned back to his radio module.  Case stared at the matted dreadlocks, the ropes of muscle around the man’s dark arms.  He jacked back in.  And flipped.

Here, Case is brought back to himself–and back to the recognition of another human body–when he speaks with Maelcum in the physical present.  A resident of Zion (paradise, according to Rastafari), Maelcum is the only character who brings any degree of spirituality into the novel, or into Case’s consciousness.  It is no coincidence, I think, that Maelcum is Case’s protector and ally; perhaps those characters who have an intact spiritual belief are the only ones able to maintain the type of single purpose we see in Maelcum.  The music is the medium through which Case is called back to those truly “human moments” that he shares with Maelcum.  When Case has flatlined, it is the sound of the music that he follows and which seems to retrieve him from the depths of braindeath.  He walks away from the bunker where he found Linda Lee near the end of the novel:

He turned and walked away, and after the seventh step, he’d closed his eyes, watching the music define itself at the center of things.  He did look back, once, although he didn’t open his eyes.

He didn’t need to.

They were there by the edge of the sea, Linda Lee and the thin child who said his name was Neuromancer.  His leather jacket dangled from her hand, catching the fringe of the surf.

He walked on, following the music.

Maelcum’s Zion dub.

Near the end of Case’s harrowing cyberspace experience, the dub music of his Zionite protectors calls him back to himself in a very embodied way:

And the voice sang on, piping him back into the dark, but it was his own darkness, pulse and blood, the one where he’d always slept, behind his eyes and no other’s.

And he woke again, thinking he dreamed, to a wide white smile framed with gold incisors, Aerol strapping him into a g-web in Babylon Rocker.

And then the long pulse of Zion dub.

So Gibson has set up a framework in which dub music, Rastafarianism, and Zionites (Jamaicans) have a singular ability to penetrate all levels of existence in this complex environment.  I am still trying to decipher what the significance of all of this may be, but I have a few ideas.  That dub is permeated with the spirituality of the culture from which it springs is the source of its power, I think.  More than many other genres of music, dub is explicitly concerned with communicating the tenets of Rastafari; it’s spiritualized.  Rastafarians’ rejection of Western culture is central to the power of the music in the novel, too.  Perhaps the answer to the alienation of the characters–and the spiritual deadness of this world–lies not in rehashing established Western traditions, but in finding alternatives that emphasize the equality of humans and their union with divinity.  Lastly, I think it’s really important that Gibson is not saying that the alternative to a cold and technologically “poisoned” culture is a return to ancient roots.  Rastafari and dub reggae are 20th century innovations; perhaps this acknowledges our ability as humans to continue creating practices that are spiritually aware and which feed our “humanity”.

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